Muhammad Ali dodges a hook thrown by Joe Frazier. Knocked down in the 15th and final round, Ali lost by a unanimous decision, his first professional defeat.
Muhammad Ali dodges a hook thrown by Joe Frazier. Knocked down in the 15th and final round, Ali lost by a unanimous decision, his first professional defeat. John Shearer/LIFE
Today, 40 years ago, there was a big event. The media called it "The Fight of the Century." In Life magazine, it was "The Battle Of Undefeated Champs."
After more than three years in forced retirement for refusing to fight in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali was back to contend in the world heavyweight championship at Madison Square Garden in New York. He was pitted against the reigning champ, Joe Frazier. And they were each, no matter what, to receive an unprecedented $2.5 million for entering the ring.
To honor the momentous fight, Life has published a gallery of photos, many never before seen, taken by John Shearer, who at the time was merely in his 20s. (Joining Shearer as a Life photographer at the fight was amateur photographer Frank Sinatra.)
In addition to shooting the fight, though, Shearer documented the two contenders in the time leading up to the fight: the media circus that surrounded them both; the outspoken — and sometimes unsportsmanlike — antipathy between them; even Ali's small gut (three years is a long time to go without a fight).
After 15 rounds of fighting, Frazier received the title by a unanimous decision. But a few years later, Ali would make a comeback by defeating George Foreman for the title.
Muhammad Ali taunts Joe Frazier in Pennsylvania at Frazier's training headquarters. Both Shearer's photos and the 1971 Life article portray the outspoken aggression between the fighters.
Ali, along with Puerto Rican light heavyweight Jose Torres (in suit) and others, gather at legendary boxing promoter Chris Dundee's gym in Miami Beach, Fla., in February 1971.
Joe Frazier tests out a band member's trumpet on the set of NBC's long-running Kraft Music Hall variety show, one of many stops on the media circuit preceding the fight.